BY LAUREN MAULDIN
I love the hunters. Can’t help myself. That division is like a bad boyfriend I just can’t quit. I know life would be better for me and my free OTTB in the jumper ring, a place where he fits in a bit more and the judging is unarguably objective, but jumps with letters and numbers by them makes me break out in hives. If a conversation turns to a meter point anything… I run away. I’ve been riding for over twenty years on cheap horses in local shows, and I just want to find twelve 2’6″ jumps, get my changes and go back to the barn to open up a bottle of wine. That’s the kind of amateur rider I am in my mid thirties, and I’m okay with it.
But damn, if I don’t love a hunter derby.
I was at week twelve of WEF in 2014 when I saw my first International Derby. All of the top hunter riders I recognized from magazines and Facebook galloped their shiny, perfect horses over the big grass field. I expected that level of quality, but I didn’t all the drama. Leaping! Stopping! Rearing! People fell off! Don’t get me wrong, I don’t ever want this kind of excitement in a hunter round (okay maybe a little bit when I’m crossing my fingers for a consolation prize in a class full of much nicer horses than mine), but I had never seen a hunter class have so much variety in the trips. The horses didn’t look like robots, they looked very much alive and I couldn’t help but grin as I watched the best and hand gallop towards a giant 4′ oxer, making it all look effortless.
Watching that class, I realized I had found my ultimate hunter dream. To boldy approach wide, natural fences. To shadbelly. To hunter derby!
Luckily, my home base of Austin, Texas has an amazing local show circuit with a nicely run hunter derby that has 2’6″ and 3′ sections. Knowing my saintly horse will jump anything you put in front of him with a smile on his face, my trainer agreed to let us enter the 2’6″ even though things like making strides and getting changes were… well, questionable. At home, we practiced rollbacks and jumping random things she drug into the ring — like the bench that usually sat by the in-gate, until she deemed us derby ready. Or rather, as ready as we were ever going to be.
You know you’re going to have a really successful day when on the course walk, you ask your friend if the jumps are set for the higher section later in the day instead of the first (and lower) 2’6″. Look, I know people say that jumps with fill are much more inviting for the horses to jump and blah blah blah 2’6″ is only as high as a stack of iPhones or whatever, but I was 50% convinced I wasn’t going to survive the course. The jumps, although nothing compared to the average National Derby at a rated show, might as well have been fallen trees from Narnia plopped into the ring. I figured it was a good thing I loved my new shadbelly more than any other attire on earth, because I was going to be buried in it that day. Somewhere in the middle of the three stride probably.
My first derby went a little like this:
Okay, we’re just going to take this nice and easy and keep a steady pace to the hay bales.
There were good moments though, and when I saw a picture of me somewhat competently jumping a sizable oxer with my horse’s ears pricked forward and the tails of my coat flying behind me, I knew I wanted to try it again.
So I lived to derby another day, with slightly higher skills but still an often mathematically suspect interpretation of strides and of course, my dodgy changes. Our next attempt had far more good jumps, but because I’m me, I had to amateur it up at least once.
I like our forward, bold approach to this oxer of doom by the rail.
For me, the hunter derby is my golden snitch. It seems a little out of reach, but I’m desperate to catch that perfect round… even if I am a little bit terrified. Seeing pictures online on social media of big derbies like the International Finals this week inspire me to get out to the barn, work on the quality of my canter and practice without stirrups. If I can’t sleep at night, sometimes I visualize perfect courses with high options and clean changes. After all, if you can’t visualize something in your head — how will you ever get it in real life?
In a fantasy future I probably won’t ever be able to achieve, I have at a fantastic horse in my barn. He’s a big, chromey hunter — fat and dimpled, with a tail that doesn’t need an extension and a 10 jump. With him, I’ll have the fantasy pocketbook to send him with a pro to all the big shows, and when Derby Finals come around I watch them go in Kentucky with the same excitement and joy that I had when I saw my first derby in Wellington.
Right now, it’s just me and my free Thoroughbred. He gives me his all at every horse show, and in return I treat him like he’s just as fancy as that fantasy horse I described above. Later this year, our local circuit in California has a hunter derby at the year end show. I could hand the reins over to my trainer, a lovely rider who, unlike me, has learned not to lean for the long spot (how can that be so wrong, when it feels so right?).
But instead, I’ll throw on my shadbelly and stay up late the night before braiding my horse. At least one high option will probably make me hyperventilate, and I’m sure I’ll almost go off course / wait when I should have gone / take a flier… or hit the trifecta of all three. Or maybe, if the sun and the moon line up in just the right way, it’ll be perfect. I know I’ll try and smile and pet my horse after, because I get to take an active role in my own little derby dreams.
About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.
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